SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- State fishery officials have delayed the start of Dungeness crab fishing season from Monterey to Point Arena along the Mendocino County coast at least until just days before Thanksgiving, threatening to eliminate the dining favorite from your holiday table.
Last year, the Californian Department of Fish and Wildlife delayed the commercial crab fishing season shortly before Thanksgiving in order to protect whales and sea turtles.
On Monday, they delayed the season again, but this time the State cast an even larger net, including sport fishermen as well.
The delay is based on data from the state's recently created Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program and has been put into place to protect the migrating pods of humpback whales off the California coast.
State official said aerial surveys on Oct. 18 and 19 counted 48 humpback whales along fishing zones in the area between the Sonoma-Mendocino line and Half Moon Bay.
Aerial surveys undertaken by NOAA researchers throughout October showed at least four distinct individual Pacific leatherback sea turtles also in the fishing grounds.
It also comes after a humpback whale was found entangled in California Dungeness crabbing gear on June 9 in Mexico.
At least 11 humpbacks have been entangled in various types of fishing gear off the West Coast so far this year, according to federal officials, who said they have observed recent weekly running average of more than 18 humpbacks in Monterey Bay.
Commercial and recreational crabbing south of Monterey up through Point Arena was scheduled to begin on Nov. 15, it but it will now be delayed until at least the next risk assessment which will come around Nov. 22.
The order also delays recreational crab fishing season.
"This is the first time the recreational Dungeness crab fishery is subject to similar measures as commercial crabbers to help protect whales and sea turtles," said state fish and game director Charlton H. Bonham. "We recognize that change takes time but thank all Californians who treasure these recreational fishing opportunities...This year, while the start of the recreational season may look different, the process allowed us to open some parts of the coast to recreational crab traps and all the coast to recreational crabbing with other fishing methods."
"A lot of the charter boats gave up. Some boats have cancelled; some boats have made them just plain fishing trips," said James Smith, who operates two charter crab fishing boats out of the Berkeley Marina.
But this Saturday, his normal crabbing gear will stay on the trailer in the parking lot.
"We didn't get a notice until 5 p.m. yesterday, which is not even enough time to prepare," he said. "But fortunately, we were looking ahead and I considered there might be a problem."
Smith bought $20,000 worth of lightweight "hoop nets" normally used for catching lobster, which are still allowed by Fish and Wildlife for crabbing. Everyone else using traditional gear -- commercial or recreational -- are prohibited from fishing as long as humpback whales are still in the area.
"It's only fair if the commercial crab fleet is going to be sidelined due to the perceived risk of entanglement, that the recreational fleet would be as well," said California Coast Crab Association President Ben Platt. "Because, they fish the same way we do. They have crab pots, lines and buoys just like we do."
But Coastside Fishing Club President Marc Gorelnik said recreational crabbers have always gotten a one-week head start before the commercial fishermen flood the fishing grounds with more than 175,000 traps.
"It is what we refer to in the trade as a 'derby fishery.' The window opens, everybody goes out and tries to grab as much as they can," said Gorelnik. "We've had this historic head start -- sort of a token thrown our way -- to allow us to get some crab without competition from the commercial industry."
Sport crabbers only account for about 4,000 traps statewide, so without the early start, the chances of them getting much are slim. State officials plan to re-evaluate the entanglement risk on November 22, but wildlife officials were conducting surveillance flights on Tuesday to count the whales.
The commercial fishermen are now hoping the season can open in time to supply the Christmas holiday market.
Back at the Berkeley Marina, Smith and his charter clients may be some of the few "giving thanks" this year, for having the foresight to invest in the new kind of gear.
"They're still attached to a rope, which kind of puzzles me why hoop net fishing is still open and traps are closed," said Smith. "But we're just going to roll with the punches and we got a whole bunch of hoop nets and hoping for the best."
John Ramos contributed to this story.
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